General Aviation is facing a huge threat and it's not User Fees. In fact, I would gladly accept a program of user fees over the TSA’s proposed Large Aircraft Security Program (LASP). Why are user fees better? Because they would be less expensive ($25 per flight versus $44 per flight), provide the same increase in security (very little) and wouldn’t destroy the convenience and utility of general aviation.
Benjamin Franklin clearly had these kinds of rules in mind when he said “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” In this case, the TSA wants us to give up our personal freedom to fly when and where we wish through an airline-like screening program that does little to improve security. Of course...
YOU would pay the bill for it—an estimated $1.9 billion, resulting in an estimated charge of $44 per flight. If you care about general aviation, go to the Regulations.gov Web site today and post your comments on this notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Final comments are due February 27, 2009. I also strongly urge you to write your elected representatives to protest these proposed new rules. Take the time to do this now.
Before the TSA adds me to a watch list for writing this, let me be clear: I have no beef with the TSA and the job that they do screening airline passengers. It’s important to deal with real security threats. 9/11 was perpetrated through the use of airliners and these need to be secured. Every other major attack has used a rented truck, but I’m not aware of anything that’s been done to secure these vehicles. Obviously even terrorists understand that a small plane can’t carry much, which is why they’ve always used trucks, not small aircraft.
However, the LASP proposal appears premised on the public misconception that “if it has wings, it must be dangerous.” Yet every crash of a small airplane with a building has left virtually no damage on the building. In fact, the government’s own tests have conclusively shown that an aircraft used as a missile against a nuclear power plant would not result in any release of radiation. Nonetheless, the TSA wants to bring “Security Theater,” at your expense, to small planes and airports everywhere. In other words, they would bring the joy, charm and convenience of airline travel to general aviation. Great.
Here are some quotes from the NPRM. The program’s premise is: “As vulnerabilities and risks associated with air carriers and commercial operators have been reduced or mitigated, terrorists may view general aviation aircraft as more vulnerable and thus attractive targets. If hijacked and used as a missile, these aircraft would be capable of inflicting significant damage.” This is false, according to government funded research.
"Although TSA has concluded in this NPRM that the security benefits of the lower weight threshold of 12,500 lbs are justified by the risk and therefore justify the additional cost of the lower threshold, we welcome commenters’ views on that topic, as well as on the costbenefit [sic] impact of alternate weight thresholds.” The TSA doesn’t explain how they concluded a 12,500 pound aircraft constitutes a threat.
One Size Fits All
In essence, this proposal recognizes no difference between a Boeing 747 and a GA aircraft, their mission, or the economics: “TSA considered developing a new regulatory program to be used solely on GA aircraft and their potential security risks. This decision would have created yet another security program applicable to large aircraft operators. Instead of five separate security programs that would apply to large aircraft operators depending on the type of service they provide, TSA is proposing one security program that would apply to all large aircraft operators (except certain government operations) and would replace the current security programs for partial program operators, twelve-five program operators, and private charter operators. The LASP would establish a consistent set of regulations for air carriers and commercial operators, as well as GA operators using large aircraft."
The proposal continues with these requirements: “Below is a list of the major requirements GA aircraft operators would be required to adopt under the LASP; a more detailed discussion of the LASP and the individual requirements is in sections II and III of this preamble:
• Ensure that their flight crew members have undergone a fingerprint-based criminal history records check (CHRC).
• Conduct watch-list matching of their passengers through TSA-approved watchlist matching service providers.
• Undergo a biennial audit of their compliance by a TSA-approved third party auditor."
One requirement is that your TSA screener compares your name, and any passenger names, with a terrorist watch list. The proposal says: “TSA has determined that watch-list matching of passengers on large aircraft is an important security measure, because it can prevent individuals who are believed to pose a risk from boarding a large aircraft and, potentially, gaining control of the aircraft, to use it as a weapon or to cause harm to aviation or national security. Such considerations extend beyond the simple use of aircraft as missiles, but also include aircraft as delivery vectors for other catastrophic payloads (e.g., chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials). Given the security concerns, TSA believes a reliable mechanism for watchlist matching for large aircraft must be operational without undue delay."
The watch list is highly controversial and fraught with problems as detailed by CNN and others. The list contains thousands of names of people who are not terrorists, including a gun-toting airline captain and a 5 year old boy. Worse yet, these people have discovered a simple way around the additional screening the watch list entails: they simply buy airline tickets under a different variation of their name. So James Robinson, whose name is on the list, avoids hassle at the airport by booking as "Jim Robinson" or "J.K. Robinson."
When CBS visited the TSA there were two suspected terrorists in the air at that moment, according to TSA chief Kip Hawley. Which of course begs the question: Why have a terrorist watch list if you’re going to let these people on board to fly?
Security expert, Bruce Schneier doesn’t think much of the TSA’s watch list. “If I had some millions of dollars to spend on terrorism security, and I had a watch list of potential terrorists, I would spend that money investigating those people. I would try to determine whether or not they were a terrorism threat before they got to the airport, or even if they had no intention of visiting an airport. I would try to prevent their plot regardless of whether it involved airplanes. I would clear the innocent people, and I would go after the guilty. I wouldn't build a complex computerized infrastructure and wait until one of them happened to wander into an airport. It just doesn't make security sense."
While the TSA admits they can’t quantify the benefits of this program, they do know the cost. “At this time, TSA cannot quantify these benefits; however, TSA conducted a 'break-even' analysis to determine what reduction of overall risk of a terror attack and resulting reduction in the expected losses for the nation due to a terror attack would be necessary in order for the expected benefits of the rule to exceed the costs."
This analysis was developed for four scenarios:
Scenario 1: “a large aircraft is used as a missile to attack an unpopulated or lightly populated area, resulting in minimal loss of life, moderate injuries and destruction of the aircraft.” Do you think a terrorist would waste time and effort on generating a minimal loss of life?
Scenario 2: “a large aircraft is used as a missile to attack a populated area, resulting in significantly greater loss of life and injuries, and destruction of the aircraft. It is assumed that a loss of 250 lives occurs, along with 250 severe injuries and the complete hull loss of the aircraft.” Does this sound like a general aviation aircraft to you?
Scenario 3: “a large aircraft is used as a missile to carry out a direct attack on a building in a densely populated urban area.” Even the crash of a B-25 bomber into the Empire State building in 1945, killed only 14 people and $1 million of damage to the building.
Scenario 4: “a large aircraft is used to deliver a nuclear or biohazard device to an urban center. The costs associated with a scenario such as this have been examined by DHS in detail for a nuclear device. TSA is using a value of $1 trillion for the direct consequences of an attack of this severity.” Realistically, how many GA airplanes are capable of doing this? If this is a real threat, it would be more effective—and a lot less expensive—to assigned armed guards to all of these aircraft.
Cost to You
Here's what the NPRM says about cost: “TSA estimates that the total 10-year cost of the program would be $1.4 billion, discounted at 7 percent; the annualized cost (at a 7 percent discount rate) per flight would be $44.” Of course discounting the cost makes it seem less; the total is really $1.9 billion.
That's just the out of pocket cost. What about the decline in general aviation activity that’s likely to occur? When it does, the cost per flight is certain to rise. So while it might cost $44 now, it’s not inconceivable that 5 years from now it would cost a pilot $100 in TSA fees for the privilege of being searched before he or she flies a plane.
One also has to wonder about the inconvenience. The program, if approved, would be implemented through third-party firms. It would be economically infeasible for them to be at every GA airport 24x7, so presumably a pilot must “call up and schedule” a screener to come to a remote airport before departing. But what if one screener, responsible for several small airports in Western Colorado, is delayed because of snowy roads. Are you—or your boss sitting in the back of the aircraft—expected to wait for hours for the screener to arrive? What if two airplanes are ready to depart at the same time from airports 50 miles apart? Will one aircraft wait an hour for the screener to arrive. What if a terrorist is hiding on board? Current TSA screeners do not carry guns but are backed up by airport police. Does that mean the screener has to coordinate for law enforcement to be present while they do the screening? Doesn’t that double the chance they’re not going to be there when you’re ready to leave?
Today, General Aviation aircraft are productive business tools that fly freely among more than 4,000 airports in the U.S. How much do you think that will change under this proposal? Do you believe that this proposal truly enhances security? Let the TSA and your elected representatives know how you feel. Take the time to file your comments now. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if someday you’re asked to take your shoes off before your fly a Cessna 152.